For last week’s edition of Saturday Morning Cartoons, I talked at length about why I feel animation can be equally satisfying for adults as for children.One point that I would like to emphasize is my position that nostalgia is one great joy animation can provide for the adult viewer; however, nostalgia is a somewhat unique experience. It can be either an incredibly rich, satisfying emotion or a fleeting syrupy feeling that doesn’t really amount to much once the moment has passed. The most puzzling thing to me about nostalgia’s effect on people is that it is often the second, more empty version of nostalgia that inspires blind devotion in an audience.
I grew up in the 1990s (yes, that means I’m not much more than a young whippersnapper,) so you’ll have to excuse me if my examples are completely biased to that era. I recognize that my generation isn’t the only one with a serious nostalgia problem, but I do believe we exhibit some very clear signs of seeing the world through nostalgia-tinted goggles. It seems like all I hear these days when someone mentions cartoons within the earshot of an early-twenty-something are complaints about how “cartoons have changed” and “the only good cartoons were the classic Nicktoons I grew up with”. In case it wasn’t apparent from my review of the Legend of Zelda animated series, people who show such a lack of analytical thought really bother me. What’s the point of claiming a preference at all if you refuse to see things outside your perspective (a fandom, your generation, etc.)? If you haven’t taken the time to consider multiple options, then you don’t have an actual preference: you simply enjoy something. You can’t claim something is “the best” or “better” if you automatically dismiss anything that falls outside your comfort zone.
This is where nostalgia starts to become a problem. It blinds people to other options, convincing them that what they experienced as a kid is “the best”, even if, objectively, the symbol of childhood in question isn’t very good.
Aladdin is a film that many people who grew up in the 90s remember fondly. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say a word against it. Oddly, even though I knew I’d watched it several times as a child, I remembered absolutely nothing about it. So I went into this movie only knowing that people of my generation loved it. They had fond memories of it, and it’s part of the Disney Renaissance, so it has to be good? Right?
It would be impossible for me to discuss American animation without addressing Disney, that seller of our childhoods for $19.95 (better get it now, before it goes back into the Disney vault!) To be fair, I grew up with Disney movies like the rest of my peers, and there are quite a few that I like, (Mulan, Tangled, the animated Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmatians and The Princess and the Frog, just to name a few.) After the beginning of the so-called Disney Renaissance in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, however, Disney was the standard against which Western animation was judged for many years. Everyone, from Dreamworks Animation to Don Bluth, was copying the successful “Disney formula.” Even in our age of 3D, non cel-shaded animation, the Disney approach to animation still lingers. It’s here to stay, at least for a while.
As I’ve said in previous articles, I think one of the greatest strengths of animation as a field is that it allows for a great deal of innovation and creativity, more so than any other genre of film, I’d argue. As a result, when talented animators find themselves forced to conform to a certain style or formula because it’s popular, that disappoints me. Especially when that formula is as flawed as I believe the Disney formula to be.
Aladdin showcases everything that’s wrong with the Disney Renaissance formula. And by “everything” I mean one, glaring, film-ruining flaw: FUCKING. SIDEKICKS.
I’m honestly not sure when in the late 80s or early 90s Disney executives decided that every film the studio turned out needed a colorful cast of companions to run parallel to the story. My guess is that the impulse started with Beauty and the Beast (1991), where the companions were both interesting and relevant to the plot. Disney probably saw what hits Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts were on the toy market and saw a way to make twice as much in merchandising with characters that little kids would want to buy in plastic form for Christmas.
It’s amazing how quickly the presence of multiple irrelevant sidekicks can ruin a movie. In Aladdin, it took me about 15 minutes to realize that absolutely nothing in the film was sacred. Literally every scene that advances the plot has to be constantly commented on by one of the film’s five silly sidekicks, two of whom are voiced by particularly overbearing comedians: Genie (Robin Williams) and Iago the Parrot (Gilbert Gottfried.) Not only does every main character have a sidekick, but every action is constantly being interrupted by a sidekick’s reaction. What’s that? Aladdin’s in love with Jasmine? Well leave it to his pet monkey Abu to look jealous and pout at the camera! Jafar is being forced to yield to the will of an incompetent, bumbling old sultan? Iago the parrot has no problems telling the audience how fucked up THAT is! And of course, we always have Genie for excessive 1990s pop culture references (more than in any other Disney movie to date, .
I think the most frustrating thing about Aladdin, though, is that it got relatively favorable reviews when it was released. Most of the praise went to the music by Allan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, as well as Robin Williams’s performance as Genie. These are both aspects of the film that deserve praise, but I see no reason why these strengths should substitute for the movie as a whole.
So why do critics tend to forgive Aladdin‘s glaring flaws? The old excuse: it’s a kid’s movie. Of course! Little kids have no concept of quality, so you can’t blame creators if they get lazy.
I am absolutely tired of hearing this. A bad movie is a bad movie, plain and simple. Not only do I believe many children can in fact innately distinguish a good movie from a poor one, but not taking children’s media seriously is a prime reason that many adults simply can’t accept animation as an acceptable form of entertainment. Aladdin is a poorly written, obnoxious movie. Why should we make excuses for it?
The critics want to excuse it because it was made for children. The people who grew up with it want to excuse it because they can’t see past the rosy haze of nostalgia. Well, you know what? This film isn’t making it past me. Aladdin is a poorly made film that’s tedious to watch. It represents many of the biggest problems facing the field of Western animation, and is a huge step back for anyone who attempts to take animation seriously.
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